Three years ago, the military mission in Afghanistan faced a critical shortage. The coalition didn't have enough helicopters to move cargo and personnel around the country, and couldn't find enough qualified contractors to fill the gap.

The only company U.S. Transportation Command (Transcom) found to provide the required airlift was a logistics support company that was more accustomed to supplying military dining halls than maintaining a fleet of aircraft.

Transcom originally gave contracts to three companies. According to the Defense Department, which detailed the situation in a document explaining its justification for extending the contract, one company failed to deliver aircraft, another went bankrupt, and the third— Supreme Site Services—ended up as the de facto provider for all air transport services.

By default Supreme become the largest contract air force in Afghanistan, providing 70% of the Defense Department's cargo lift.

The contract with Supreme epitomizes the U.S. military's struggle in recent years with aviation support services, particularly with a surge in U.S. forces and roadside bombs pushing logistics into the air. The scramble for airlift is evident at Bagram Air Base, the hub for U.S. and allied military operations in Afghanistan, where military personnel can wait hours, even days, for a 25-mi. flight to Kabul.

One reason for this shortfall is increasing violence in Afghanistan. Moving people and supplies is more economical by road, but as roadside bombs proliferated, it became more dangerous. Another factor is constraints on moving equipment through Pakistan, which restricted the goods allowed to transit through the country. Pakistan also saw a spate of insurgent attacks on supply lines, and at times shut its border with Afghanistan to coalition convoys carrying essential supplies.

The demand has produced sizable contracts for aviation support companies. The Supreme contract was replaced in 2011 with the $4.7 billion Transcom Mega contract, which called for 18 medium-, heavy- and super-heavy-lift rotary-wing aircraft. Transcom in 2011 awarded contracts and task orders to Canadian Commercial Corp., Vertical Aviation of Colombia and U.S.-based Presidential Airways (now AAR), Evergreen Helicopters, Columbia Helicopters and Construction Helicopters.

Transcom has awarded nine task orders to date, but says the contract has not yet reached its $4.7 billion budgetary ceiling.

While demand for aviation support in Afghanistan surged, the practice has at times drawn public scrutiny. The most noteworthy example was the 2004 crash of a privately operated twin-engine then-CASA C212 operated by Presidential Airways, then a subsidiary of private security firm Blackwater Worldwide. The light transport aircraft hit the side of a canyon, killing three crewmembers and three U.S. soldiers.

The incident became a lightning rod for congressional criticism of contractors, particularly after cockpit dialog was released showing the pilots exchanging light banter minutes before the crash. While the crash may have colored the popular notion of private “air forces” operating in Afghanistan, the truth is that such services have been commonplace for years and continue to grow.

The biggest driver for private air support has been the military's downsizing over the past two decades. “It's taken away the ability to do basic logistic support missions,” says Randy Martinez, vice president for government and defense services at AAR, which bought Presidential Airways in 2010.

AAR operates 24 helicopters and 15 fixed-wing aircraft from eight locations in Afghanistan. Along with logistics and transport to supply outposts, the company was, until January 2011, operating C212s for low-cost, low-altitude airdrops, though this work is on hold pending a regulatory review of the procedures used by the Defense Department.

With the military's aircraft focused on kinetic engagements in high-threat areas, contractors have moved into logistics. “[The military] relies on contractors to move beans and bullets,” says Martinez.

While demand for private air support has surged worldwide, Afghanistan has proved challenging. Industry officials cite numerous problems, from difficulties getting spare parts, to the costs of operating in a “high and hot” environment in a country with undeveloped airfields and almost nonexistent infrastructure.

“I can't imagine a more difficult operating environment and logistics environment than Afghanistan,” says Martinez.

The problems are real, but manageable, says Sam Shamp, vice president of Army aviation at DynCorp, which provides air support services in Afghanistan to the Army under the Logistics Civil Augmentation Program contract. “It's just another difficult place; that's part of the work.”

But the situation in Afghanistan is also becoming more complex. The government in Kabul is in the process of standing up the Afghan Public Protection Force, which will take the place of private security companies. Though that's not likely to affect military air support contracts, it could come into play with Western companies that employ aviation support providers to move personnel and supplies.

Doug Brooks, president of the Washington-based International Peace Operations Assn., which represents private contractors, says it's “hard to say” whether the introduction of the new force could have an impact on aviation support contracting.

And finding qualified contractors to perform aviation services is not easy. To move government personnel, for example, contractors must have Commercial Aircraft Review Board (CARB) certification, the result of a 1985 crash of a charter jet carrying U.S. military personnel from Egypt to the U.S. The crash killed all 256 on board, and led to tougher regulations for companies under contract to the U.S. government.

However, for logistics contracts that don't require CARB certification, such as transporting supplies, Russian companies such as UTAir dominate. The Russians have captured a large portion of the air logistics market, particularly for United Nations and NATO missions. When it comes to cost, U.S. and European contractors can't compete with Russian companies, which have lower operating costs, in part due to lower-paid pilots.

There are contracts for niche missions as well, as perhaps best illustrated by recently posted video of a DHC-4 Caribou, operated by FlightWorks of Kennesaw, Ga., making an airdrop in Afghanistan's Paktika Province. While FlightWorks has not publicly confirmed its Caribou flights in Afghanistan, the company was awarded a $13 million contract in April for aerial resupply work.

In the video, the company's aircraft is flying a few hundred feet above ground—the half-century-old twin turboprop skims low over a forward operating base, dropping pallets. This low-cost airdrop is one way the U.S. military supplies outposts in a country with primitive infrastructure and the continuing threat of roadside bombs.

Other companies have looked at expanding beyond transporting people and personnel to what used to be core military functions, such as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. Dynamic Aviation of Bridgewater, Va., which operates fixed-wing aircraft for military customers in Afghanistan, announced in 2010 that it was adding a Bombardier Dash 8 with government-furnished sensors to support Central Command.

“We have experienced steady growth over the past 10 years,” says Michael Stoltzfus, president of Dynamic Aviation. Stoltzfus declined to identify Dynamic's military customers.

As for the difficulty of working in Afghanistan, Stoltfuz says that “comes with the territory.”

Many companies realize that the Afghanistan mission is ending. Even if current contracts for Afghanistan extend two or three years after U.S. forces leave, there is nothing on the horizon of similar scale.

However, the drawdown is not likely to spell an immediate end to contract air fleets in Afghanistan—there is a long precedent of private-sector aviation support companies outlasting the military.

According to one industry source, the real concern among companies in Afghanistan is that the drawdown will leave them with aircraft to sustain or bring home, but no business. “The companies will have assets,” the source remarks. “Where are they going to put them?” In many cases, the companies paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to transport the aircraft to Afghanistan. It's unclear where these aircraft will go, or how companies plan to get them out economically.

Despite growing business in other regions, such as U.S. Africa Command, nothing approaches the tempo of operations in Afghanistan.

“Afghanistan was the Holy Grail,” the industry source says. Regarding opportunities, “There will never be anything like it again,” he adds.